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Mare of Easttown Review: Kate Winslet's Paint-by-Numbers Murder Mystery Never Investigates Its Own Characters

It's another well-produced show you can skip

Candice Frederick

There are series that leave you with such well-earned satisfaction that you immediately want to recommend it to anyone who will listen, and there are others that leave such a sour taste in your mouth that you instantly want to chase it with anything good to watch. But then there is Mare of Easttown, which is merely fine. It's not particularly bad or good. Showrunner Brad Inglesby's suburban mystery series is an entry that seems just happy to be here at all.

That's in part due to its inability to crackle, an unusual flaw in a genre that glides on its capacity to keep you invested with sharp twists and tension that continually have you looking at all characters as possible suspects. Kate Winslet tries to engage audiences as the anchor of Mare of Easttown, its titular detective who finds herself embroiled in the case of an anonymous serial killer in her small Pennsylvania town. Mare is also a hard-drinking, divorced single mother who is unable to find any peace at home with a rebellious teenage daughter (Angourie Rice), prickly mother (Jean Smart), and impressionable young grandson (Izzy King).

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Those two sides of Mare's life are simply facts, not really anything that is explored on a deeper level in the narrative or color her character or enhance her motivation or that of the plot at all. Sure, any major crime that happens in a community as tiny as Easttown has the potential to make every resident seem more or less suspicious, including the protagonist and her blended family. But there's no actual reason to target any of these characters who probably have all laid eyes on the killer as well as each of their victims outside of the fact that most of them conform to the stereotypically gruff, working-class types who luck has too often forgotten.

But Mare of Easttown doesn't seem especially interested in diving into the human aspects of what it is in fact that makes any of these characters -- including, absurdly, its lead -- have a persistent chip on their shoulders. Instead, it hopes to draw us into the unfolding mystery at its center. Who is the killer and why would they target young women who don't seem to have so much as mildly annoyed anyone ever in their lives? And why is Mare so invested in this story that she goes to great lengths, even jeopardizing her own livelihood, to bring justice?

Inglesby, together with director/executive producer Craig Zobel, doesn't offer any answers to those questions. The series is more of a snapshot of this case at this moment in the town history, even though the killer has been on the prowl since before the narrative takes place. What we see in Mare of Easttown is a community essentially brought to its knees upon realizing that the previous horrifying instance was only the beginning of a spree of murders.

Kate Winslet and Evan Peters, Mare of Easttown

Sarah Shatz/HBO

Perhaps the series would have been more fulfilling as a two-hour thriller. In this extended seven-episode format, it promises a deeper dive than it actually has. It's more mystery by numbers: Women are missing and/or brutally killed and it's apparently only up to Mare to figure out what's going on. Well, Mare and Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters) who joins the case, much to standoffish Mare's chagrin. Because, presumably, people too often get in her way.

But then again, Mare warms up to Zabel, even though Winslet and Evans themselves have very little chemistry on screen together. It's clear that Ingelsby wants so badly to recreate the magic between Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler from Law and Order: SVU when they're really just two people with a shared professional goal: to solve this case. Otherwise, they wouldn't even be speaking to each other.

It's also a wonder why Mare even gives Richard (Guy Pearce), a local creative writing professor who has no other purpose in the series other than flirt with the protagonist, the time of day.

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So, let's all just focus on the vaguely interesting case, shall we? Mare and Craig lead viewers through darkly lit homes and to one shady character after the next in an effort to put the souls of this community at ease. For what it's worth, and maybe the series' greatest strength, it's hard to tell which direction the clues will send us as the number of crimes escalate and both the protagonists and the audience are thrown off the trail.

Still, with the overwhelming variety of "prestige" content that exists in every nook and cranny of the internet and beyond right now, Mare of Easttown isn't exactly appointment television. While it's somewhat exciting to try to guess the killer, the series wastes potential to dig into its characters and their relationships, and the landscape is the more lasting feeling after finishing the final episode. It just leaves you with a noticeably detached feeling of, "Okay, well that's done."

TV Guide rating: 2.5/5

Mare of Easttown premieres Sunday, April 18 at 9/8c on HBO and HBO Max.